As a young man, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) wrote a prize-winning novel (with the perfect, pretentious title The Empty Table), drawing his plot from the lives of his parents and sister. Now, in middle age, his biggest fiction is the story he tells people, and himself, about his own life.
Making ends meet, not quite, by working as a private eye, he insists he only took the job to gather material for his next book. But here’s the only note we see him scribble and post above the desk in his small apartment: Why did my life turn out like this?
As a P.I. in some of Tokyo’s drabber alleys, he stakes out wives or husbands whose spouses think they’ve strayed. Ironically, his day job reflects what he does in his own off hours — sneaking around to spy on his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) and son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Ryota only gets to spend the day with his boy once a month, and he may lose that privilege soon because he’s behind in his payments of child support (and in rent on his apartment, too).
Yes, Ryota is a mess. But if this sounds like something sad or hardboiled, be reassured: this is the latest drama from prolific Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda. If it explores regrets that come with middle age, it also has the same forgiving wisdom that defines his other films, including the recent Our Little Sister, I Wish and Like Father, Like Son. Kore-eda may steer his characters into choppy waters, but he never lets them sink or drown. (A title that could describe the stoic endurance of all his characters comes from his 2008 film, Still Walking.)
A lanky, handsome actor, Abe is able to hold our sympathies for Ryota — even when he’s rummaging through his long-suffering mother Yoshiko’s tiny apartment, looking for something to pawn so he can buy a baseball mitt for Shingo.
Deadpan, and a pro at tempering warmth with withering frankness, Kirin Kiki plays Yoshiko. Like Abe, Maki and Lily Franky, who plays Ryota’s boss, Kiki is a veteran of Kore-eda’s earlier films. The actors are like a longtime rep company. That explains the ease with which they create believable emotional shorthand and tensions in their scenes together.
The storm of the movie’s title is a typhoon heading to Japan and first mentioned in the opening minutes. Like Chekhov’s gun, which must go off by Act III, you know that a lot of rain is bound to fall before movie’s end. The squall, though, is when After the Storm gets fascinatingly quiet. As the wind wails outside, the estranged family – Ryota, Kyoko and Shingo – find themselves bedding down in Yoshiko’s apartment.
No one can really sleep for long. Reestablished, temporarily, as a nuclear unit, the characters gently confront the past and try to resolve how to move into the future. Speaking to her daughter-in-law about her own husband, and by extension her ne’er-do-well son, Yoshiko wonders, “I wonder why it is that men can’t love the present. Either they just keep chasing whatever it is they’ve lost, or they keep dreaming beyond their reach.”
It’s a lovely observation, but it’s also proof that Kore-eda’s dialogue is a little more on-the-nose than usual. His films don’t usually underscore their themes so directly. It’s hard to complain, though. The movie still has the humanist grace and generosity of his stronger work. As the storm winds down and dawn approaches, you deeply care — because you can’t predict, and neither can they — whether these family members will learn to grow up, let go and move on.
After the Storm. With Hiroshi Abe, Yoko Maki, Taiyo Yoshizawa, Kirin Kiki. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. 117 minutes. In Japanese with subtitles. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.